For match photos, scroll to Photostream above. Scroll down to read manager reactions.
Striker Robin van Persie came out on top in the battle of the Barclays Premier League’s top scorers as Manchester United emerged from a tricky test with a 2-1 win against arch-rivals Liverpool.
The Netherlands international continued his remarkable scoring spree with a close-range effort in the first half which was doubled after the break by Nemanja Vidic.
Liverpool substitute Daniel Sturridge overshadowed team-mate Luis Suarez, who began the day one behind Van Persie on 15 top-flight goals for the season, by marking his league debut for his new club with a second goal in as many matches and had a chance to snatch a point late on, but United just held on.
Van Persie – expertly and clinically – scored with virtually his first chance and could have had at least one other in the first half, while at the other end Suarez toiled in vain but never really got a goalscoring opportunity against Rio Ferdinand and Vidic – reunited in the centre of defence for the first time since September – with his one effort coming just before the interval and only troubling the fans in the Stretford End.
A slow-burning match came to life in the 19th minute when, with United steadily building the pressure, the ball was worked from right to left for Patrice Evra to pick up in space. The French full-back’s low cross was the perfect invitation and Van Persie did what he does best, side-footing a firs-time shot past Pepe Reina.
It was the Dutchman’s 65th goal in 77 Barclays Premier League matches, his 10th in the past 10 games, his fifth in as many matches against Liverpool (three coming for Arsenal and the other at Anfield earlier in the season) and his 20th of the campaign in all competitions.
Van Persie might also have had another, having charged through a gaping hole between centre-backs Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger to collect Ashley Young’s through-ball but he uncharacteristically ballooned over.
Liverpool, deploying a number of inexperienced players such as Andre Wisdom, Raheem Sterling and Joe Allen, were now struggling to cope with United’s attacking menace, with Danny Welbeck skipping past Skrtel to fire over while Tom Cleverley’s left-footed volley flashed just wide of Jose Reina’s left-hand post.
Only a brilliant goal-line clearance from Skrtel from Van Persie’s clever backheel from Rafael’s cross prevented a second, with Reina taking a hefty whack from Shinji Kagawa in the aftermath which required lengthy treatment.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s side have been in front at half-time in 211 previous Barclays Premier League games at Old Trafford and never lost (199 wins and 12 draws) so the task facing Liverpool was stark.
United winger Ashley Young failed to reappear for the second half – replaced by Antonio Valencia – having injured himself after an overenthusiastic tackle on Agger.
However, the more significant introduction at the interval was that of Sturridge, whose pace up front provided much-needed support for Suarez and introduced a different dynamic for the United defence.
Wisdom had the chance to make a name for himself having charged forward 70 yards to exchange passes with Suarez only to fire wide, and within three minutes United were 2-0 up as Skrtel’s foul on Welbeck on the edge of the area, which earned him a yellow card, allowed Van Persie to swing in a free-kick from which Evra’s header deflected in off Vidic’s face.
At that stage it appeared the game was up for the visitors but their first shot on target brought some hope. A low strike from Gerrard, on a rare foray to United penalty area, was only parried by David de Gea and Sturridge used his poacher’s instinct to follow up the rebound.
The change was almost instantaneous as, Reina palming away Kagawa’s shot aside, Liverpool moved into the ascendancy with substitute Fabio Borini, on his first appearance since early October because of a broken foot, volleying wide.
Sturridge had the chance to snatch an equaliser and the headlines with five minutes to go after Suarez’s determination resulted in the ball breaking to his strike partner but the recent signing from Manchester City leant back, his effort sailed over and United escaped to consolidate their position as the unquestioned Barclays Premier League pacesetters.
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson: "I would have taken that score before the game. The first-half performance, and until we scored the second goal, was absolutely brilliant. It was as good a performance as we have had for a long time and we should have been three or four up but when they got their goal they got inspired by it. Their supporters got going and it was hard work after that. I am just glad we won the match.
"I haven't seen the [Liverpool] goal again but it looked a bit soft; once again the 'keeper has parried one out and nobody is following in the rebound. It lifted them. Some of our defending after that was a bit erratic and even desperate at times. But we managed to get through it.
"The last three or four minutes they were shoving players into the box and there was some interchange play we had to deal with. The name of the game is winning. There are moments where you have to defend. Today was one of them.
"Winning against Liverpool is important. It doesn't matter where you are in the league. Manchester United-Liverpool games are fantastic challenges. They are the two most successful teams in the country. Today, hopefully, those three points will be very important."
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers: “We're disappointed with those goals but we'll take great hope from the second-half performance. We know the improvements we need to make if we're to sustain a challenge at the top of the table.
"We get great backing here from our supporters, they were brilliant, kept rallying us in the second half and we're just disappointed for them that we couldn't get that equaliser which I though we deserved.
"I thought [Daniel Sturridge] was a real threat when he came on. He's an outstanding young player who just needed an opportunity. He's now got two goals in two games and he'll score many goals for Liverpool for sure."
|20 Jan 2013||v Tottenham (A)|
|30 Jan 2013||v Southampton (H)|
|02 Feb 2013||v Fulham (A)|
|10 Feb 2013||v Everton (H)|
|23 Feb 2013||v QPR (A)|
|02 Mar 2013||v Norwich (H)|